Thursday, January 08, 2015

Weeks before war's end, Union private suffers awful wound

In a photo probably taken shortly after the Civil War, Jesse Rice, a private in the
 20th Connecticut, poses in the studio of a photographer in New Haven, Conn.
 (Photo: Blogger's collection)
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Although there is no evidence that the war shattered Jesse Rice’s mind, the 20th Connecticut soldier suffered a terrible physical toll. A farmer from Cheshire, he was captured at Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. Paroled 11 days later, the 21-year-old private missed the Battle of Gettysburg, where the 20th Connecticut suffered 36 casualties.

Rice remained unscathed physically until March 19, 1865, less than a month before the Rebels surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, when he suffered a gunshot wound to his right arm at the Battle of Bentonville in North Carolina. His arm was amputated nearly two months later, but the surgeon apparently botched the operation, leaving him with a painful, lasting reminder of his 38 months in the Union army.

After the war, Rice twice tried to be outfitted for an artificial arm, but a physician noted it was not possible “for reason that end of bone is so sharp & and whole stump is so painful."

He had trouble sleeping because of the amputation, but that was the least of his concerns. A New Haven physician noted a litany of physical maladies for Rice, all largely due to the “nervous shock from loss of [the] arm and the disadvantage to which this loss put him.” Only 53 years old at the time, Rice, the doctor noted, suffered from “severe constipation,” dizziness, a double hernia, frequent attacks of diabetes, “great pain in defecation,” and an “inability to properly digest food,” among other ailments. Once weighing about 185 pounds, Rice only had 140 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame.

“His condition in a general way is as bad as it could be and but for a strong will and superior intellect he would be absolutely helpless,” wrote the doctor, who added “if  [Rice] long survives it must be through constant and daily medical attention and judicious nursing.”

In 1895, another doctor wrote in a pension affidavit for Rice that his patient suffered from attacks of severe retching and vomiting that would continue for two or three days and then recur a day or two later. “It appears to have become a chronic condition for him,” noted the New Haven physician, who also attributed Rice’s awful health to his war wound.

After the war, Rice returned to Cheshire, where he married Caroline Holbrook, raised a family and farmed. In a post-war diary in which he recorded the weather, deaths in the neighborhood, the assassination of President Garfield and the butchering of his 428-pound hog, Rice barely made mention of the Civil War. Perhaps it was just easier to forget.

“18 years since Bentonville,” he simply wrote in 1883 on the anniversary of his wounding.

When he died in 1915 at 71, Rice was on government rolls for a $55-a-month war pension.


-- Jesse Rice pension file, National Archives and Records Service, Washington D.C.
-- Jesse Rice diary, Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Conn.

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  1. Jesse Hull Rice is my first cousin, three times removed. I had never seen a photo of him! Thanks for posting it.

  2. WHMeg: That's fantastic. I'll tell a little more about Jesse in my next book, Hidden History of Connecticut Union Soldiers, due out Oct. 26 (The History Press). His photo is included in the book.